x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Get more power and style out of a car with modification

You may think your car was a perfect 10 right out of the box, but Kevin Hackett says there are many ways to turn it up to an 11.

Improving your car could involve nothing more than an ECU remap, the results of which can be measured on a dynamometer seen here. Courtesy Newspress UK
Improving your car could involve nothing more than an ECU remap, the results of which can be measured on a dynamometer seen here. Courtesy Newspress UK

You may think your car was a perfect 10 right out of the box, but Kevin Hackett says there are many ways to turn it up to an 11.

Your car is, according to statistics the world over, the second most expensive purchase you're ever likely to make. Yet, while nobody thinks twice about making alterations to their property, most people keep their cars exactly as they were when they rolled off the production line. Like property, though, cars can be brought back to life with a proper clean. They can also be individualised, made personal to you, and actually improved upon if you're careful in the choices you make.

Before you read on, however, and start making a to-do list of things you want to treat your pride and joy to, it's worth noting that most manufacturers will laugh you out of the workshop if you take a car in for warranty work having made any changes to your car whatsoever. My own car reaches the end of its factory warranty period next month, when it will be three years old, and I fully intend to take advantage of that fact by having it "chipped" and possibly lowered for greater levels of grip (OK, I admit, to make it look cool). But with the car being king in this land we call home, it's gratifying to note that there is no shortage of specialists who can turn your car into something far better than what it once was.

Bodywork

The sky really is the limit when it comes to changing your car's appearance. From something as simple as a new set of alloy wheels to a completely bespoke designed body, so long as you stay within local laws, your motor can be used as an expression of your personality.

We'll get to that later but, for now, let's examine how to make the most of your car's looks without resorting to cosmetic surgery. Paint technology has come a long way in recent years, resulting in finishes that better cope with sunlight, rain and other airborne muck without fading into oblivion. However, if your car's bodywork is a shadow of its former glory, there's not necessarily any need to head for a respray just yet. Car accessory shops and many petrol stations sell a range of products that can restore that missing lustre, ranging from detergents to waxes and polishes, and all are quick and easy to use.

But what happens if you've swapped paint with another car, a bollard or a car park wall, resulting in a hideous blemish on your doors or other panels? A colleague recently experienced this with her Volvo and, fortunately, the scuff hadn't resulted in any dented panels. Still, she assumed a partial respray would be required to return her car to navy blue all over. She was wrong, and a short visit to a car detailing shop called Banorama in Abu Dhabi (one of many based at Adnoc stations) was all it took to put things right.

Car detailing is a specialist service where experts in paint restoration and preservation work their magic in a way the guy who washes your car probably can't. Using special chemicals, fine abrasives and a wide array of power tools, the blemishes on a car's paintwork can be ground away, leaving only the original colour on show. My colleague ended up paying a tiny fraction of what a respray would have cost, and the job took less than 40 minutes.

If you're feeling brave, though, the only limit when it comes to personalising your car is the extent of your own imagination. Are you fed up with the way your doors open? You've probably never even considered them but, if you are, why not change them to "suicide" doors, with hinges to the rear rather than the front? If that's too conventional, how about a set of Lamborghini-style scissor doors that lift vertically? You could have a four-door saloon so equipped - anything at all is possible and no matter what you think of, someone, somewhere will have had a go before you.

Sometimes you might just be bored with the colour of your car. If that's the case, companies such as Fibrafoil in Dubai can give it a matte finish, a chrome coating or even make it look like the panels have been riveted together as if it's an aircraft rather than a car. This process of having a car "foil wrapped" has really taken off and, while not cheap, it is still a relatively inexpensive way of making your car unique. And once the novelty of its new appearance has worn off, the wrap can be removed, exposing your original bodywork with no harm done.

Engine

This is where things get really interesting, and it's the one area I'm definitely keen to explore with my own Scirocco, particularly after recently experiencing the R model, which made mine feel a tad underpowered. The thing is, the Scirocco R has the same engine as my 2.0 TSI but it develops 60 more horsepower - and that's simply liberated by changing the way the car's onboard computer communicates with the engine and fitting a sports exhaust.

Unless you drive an old classic, your car's performance parameters have been set by its maker with the help of what's called an ECU, or Electronic Control Unit, which is basically a computer that sits somewhere out of sight, telling the engine how much power and torque it's allowed to develop. Car companies always like to hold something back, allowing them to reveal an even faster, more powerful version of the car you already own at a later date. And often the only thing they do is to tweak the ECU.

You can do this, too, by having your car's engine tuned. And this can take a variety of forms, from having the ECU remapped or "chipped", to having a mechanic change the physical construction of the engine with stronger internal components, forced induction (turbocharging or supercharging), new induction systems - the list is potentially endless.

If this seems a bit extreme and all you want to do is make your car more efficient, that's easy, too. In other parts of the world, such as the UK, where you have to sell the wife and kids to afford a full tank of fuel, many are interested in reducing consumption, but that's not really relevant here. However, our engines do need to breathe freely if we're to maximise their potential, and that requires constant attention in the sandy and dusty environs we call home.

If you ever lift up your car's bonnet, there'll be a big black plastic-covered thing in the middle. That'll be the engine and, sitting alongside it somewhere, will be another, smaller black plastic box which houses the air filter. This should be changed every 15,000km, which is more frequent than in other countries because of the excessive airborne dust we have to put up with. Fit a new one and you could find your car drinks less fuel, to the tune of 10 per cent, simply because it doesn't have to work so hard to breathe.

You can also fit cone-shaped air filters, removing the standard items. They tend to sit closer to the front of the engine, sucking in more air, and their shape, along with the lack of plastic covers, mean they help the engine take in more air, thereby increasing its performance. It's a quick and easy fix, which could remind you of what your car used to drive like when it was new.

Handling

Much like your car's engine, its suspension plays a dramatic role in the way it behaves. Take practically any standard road car to a racetrack to see how it handles in tight, fast corners and you'd be forgiven for thinking the door handles were scraping the tarmac. But there are a million and one things you can do to enhance its cornering prowess, not to mention its looks.

It might look cool when a car is "slammed", sitting so low to the ground that it appears to have no space between the road and its chassis. But no matter how smooth and straight our highways are here, lowering a car should involve a drop no greater than 30mm. Even reducing a car's ride height by a third of that will make a big difference to its stance, so approach with caution.

The UAE is full of wheel and suspension specialists, so take their advice as to what needs to be done and let the professionals look after the job in its entirety. The result should be a car that looks and rides better, grips more and takes corners more flatly, while still managing to clear the country's often severe speed bumps.

Another simple way to improve your car's handling is to make it stiffer, especially if it's a convertible. The most straightforward way to do this is to fit a strut brace, which is a rigid bar (usually made from steel or carbonfibre) that spans the engine bay, fixed at either end atop the two front suspension struts. It serves to reduce the amount of flex your car's body generates when cornering, while increasing the levels of feedback from the chassis and cornering grip.

Interior

Fancy having your seats, dashboard and roof lining covered with camel hide? A tannery in Abu Dhabi has actually facilitated this, proving once again that anything is possible if your pockets are deep enough and you know where to turn. The truth is, though, that our car interiors lead a tough life and it's easy to forget just how smart they used to be. Like the paintwork, a car detailing company will be able to restore leathers, fabrics and plastics to almost as-new condition.

Something worth remembering is that the "daily deal" websites that operate in the UAE (Groupon, LivingSocial and the like) often offer car detailing services for Dh300 or less - an absolute bargain that should be snapped up. They'll clean your engine, inside your doors, shampoo your carpets, treat your leather, remove ingrained and baked-on brake dust from those difficult-to-clean wheels, leaving your car looking and smelling like it used to when you fell in love with it in the first place.

khackett@thenational.ae